Clay County Quietly Gave Two Top Officials Free Housing On Top Of Six-Figure Salaries
Two top Clay County officials who make more than $100,000 a year live rent-free at county-managed properties, according to leases obtained by KCUR through a records request.
In exchange for living at a house on Smithville Lake and an apartment in an old schoolhouse, assistant county administrators Nicole Brown and Brad Garrett have to be on call for at least six months and “respond to routine operational problems.”
It’s common practice for Clay County to give free housing in exchange for on-call duties, but some elected officials question why the deal was made without commissioners’ approval. County documents are missing a key detail: the year the leases were signed. And Brown herself seems to be a major cog in the ongoing state audit, which was citizen-requested due to wider transparency concerns.
The leases need “substantial review,” according to presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte. He said had the three commissioners voted, he would have been able to ask “what the benefit was to taxpayers.”
“This is a vivid example of our broken government, when we give an employee … a free lakeside house [and] six-figure salary,” County Clerk Megan Thompson said.
Neither Brown nor Garrett responded to repeated requests for an interview. The third assistant county administrator, Laurie Portwood, oversees finances, and does not lease a county-managed home.
‘When did this actually happen?’
Clay County rents out six total properties to employees, in exchange for those people being on call. The county doesn’t charge rent, but employees have to pay utilities.
The county considers those properties nontaxable benefits, so employees don’t pay taxes on the houses, according to Commissioner Luann Ridgeway. She said this was based on guidance from the IRS, but declined to provide specifics about the IRS’ advice, out of concern that it would violate employee protections.
Under their leases, Brown and Garrett have similar responsibilities to others. And a facilities-management administrator once rented the apartment Garrett is staying in. Having top-level administrators in houses makes sense, Ridgeway said, because they have the authority to “assemble the team members necessary to comprehensively address consumer issues that arise.”
Brown’s lease doesn’t specify which year it started. A county spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests about the year.
And it’s not the only county lease without a year. Former county administrator Dean Brookshier signed four on a May 1; including Brown’s and Garrett’s leases.
Brookshier had that authority due to the expanded power that's been given to administrators — power that elected officials like the county auditor and assessor have voiced concerns about, saying it erodes checks and balances. Brookshier resigned in 2018.
The lease agreement with Brown was scheduled for a commission vote in August 2016 but removed from the agenda. According to documents attached to the agenda, Brown’s lease would “provide a county presence in the Parks” and Brown would “be on call for issues that arise during non-business hours.” During that 2016 meeting, Nolte raised concerns about the issue being discussed behind closed doors.
It’s a question Thompson, the county clerk, still wants answered.
“It's like, just basic record-keeping 101. It's like, when did this actually happen?” she said, adding, “If they are not hiding anything, and this is not inappropriate, why would they keep it a secret? Why wouldn't they vote on it in public?”
Clay County Assessor Cathy Rinehart called the deal a “sham,” and said she questions the extent to which Brown is truly on call 24/7.
Ridgeway said she’s willing to consider a review of whom the county leases to, as long as the review isn’t focused on a particular individual. She also told KCUR she is looking into the date of the lease. When asked what year Brown’s lease began, Ridgeway took issue with the focus on Brown.
“I think it is very inappropriate to single out a woman and her job responsibilities as opposed to the males and her male counterparts,” Ridgeway said.
Brown, who’s been with the county since 2013, lives in a three-bedroom house built in 1965 that is valued at around $134,800. The property belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which leases the Smithville Lake area to the county.
Brown oversees the county’s IT, tourism and marketing, as well as the park ranger division, event coordination and historic sites. She makes $114,213 a year, according to the county’s transparency portal.
She also is a key figure in the ongoing state audit requested by thousands of citizens and started in December 2018.
Auditor Nicole Galloway issued two subpoenas for Brown, who didn’t show up for one deposition due to vacation and didn’t answer questions at the other. The auditor’s office said it was “unprecedented.”
Galloway subpoenaed the county for job-performance reviews for Brown and Garrett, who’s in charge of facilities management. He makes $105,430 a year and leases an apartment at the Mt. Gilead historical complex in Kearney.
The auditor also wants records related to Brown’s job, like parks department cash-handling procedures and boat slip information.
It is unclear whether the auditor is looking at the county’s leases. A spokeswoman for Galloway said she couldn’t provide information about ongoing audit work.
In 2013, parks department staff requested that the county lease the lakehouse that Brown lives in to a marina manager who could respond to issues at the Paradise Pointe, Camp Branch and Sailboat Cove marina facilities, according to a memo obtained by KCUR. Previously, a park ranger lived there.
John Morse, a former parks employee, lived at a county-managed house at the golf course. He said he responded to maintenance issues, like flooding and irrigation system problems.
“The people traditionally in the staff houses are the ones that actually did the work. And they were there for response time. So, you know, my opinion is it saves nothing,” Morse said of having Brown near the marina. “She may be there and she may be aware that something's going on but she's still going to make a phone call and you're going to have to deal with downtime on whatever issue it is for somebody to come in and actually do the work.”
Former Clay County parks director John Hartman said the decision not to charge rent makes sense because of the additional duties an employee takes on. Hartman worked for the county for more than two decades before retiring in the early 2000s.
“You're never really off the clock. All of us kept two-way radios in our homes so that we could hear what was going on in the field with the staff and other agencies and didn't even have to wait for a page or a phone call,” Hartman said, adding later, “I don't think you would have gotten the resident in there if they had to pay rent.”
But Nolte, who is typically outvoted 2-1 on the commission, said he hasn’t seen any information that shows what the benefit is to taxpayers for having Brown at the Smithville Lake house.
Ridgeway said the decision was based on Brown’s own “broader authority.”
“We identified in the past that there were problems in resolving customer service complaints. And that was largely because we did not have an on-call, on-site person with the authority to assemble the team members necessary to comprehensively address consumer issues that arise and with 1.5 million visitors per year to the Smithville Lake Park area,” Ridgeway said. “... We believe it was appropriate to put an administrator with broader authority to comprehensively resolve customer and citizen issues that they face.”
Ridgeway is a former state senator, and Brown worked for her office back then. Brown’s mother, former state Rep. Wanda Brown, served in the General Assembly for two years with Ridgeway.
Nicole Brown was hired by Clay County before Ridgeway became a commissioner, Ridgeway said. She also noted that Brown “had a stellar record” at the Capital and that their previous working relationship wasn’t a factor in the decision to lease the house to Brown.
Hard to compare
A similar rental arrangement in Wyandotte County involving the Kansas City, Kansas, police chief raised concerns in 2018. Chief Terry Zeigler paid a reduced rent in exchange for fixing up a lake house at Wyandotte County Lake Park, according to KSHB.
And in Kansas City, Missouri, the parks department has five houses that employees can live in, but they have to pay rent, which is based on an appraisal.
“We thought this was at least a fair practice,” said the department's deputy director, Krista Morrison. “We get our employees in the property and they care about the park system. They want to maintain our properties. And then we're also getting a fair-market rent for it as well.”
Those leases include responsibilities like providing “services to citizens and visitors in or around the surrounding property” and conducting “security inspections of the immediate property and surrounding park property,” according to a copy of a lease shared with KCUR.
Ridgeway said it’s unfair to compare Brown and Garrett’s leases with how other communities handle similar situations.
“Because it's impossible to know what the legal complexities would be concerning the property that’s owned,” Ridgeway said. “I can only speak to my area of responsibility.”
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.